After years of serving my local church, a crescendo of hurt and frustration crashed into my life. Where I once spent every Wednesday and Sunday lingering in sanctuaries and foyers, I now rushed from the pew to my car, bypassing every greeting and conversation. Undeniably, a cataclysmic shift was taking place within me. I had been hurt, and I didn’t want to go to church anymore. I felt ashamed for the apathy that had formed in my heart. Suddenly, going to service no longer comforted me—it frustrated me. Obligation motivated me, not service or joy.
In the middle of an uncertain and unstable season, I felt incredibly misunderstood. Friends urged me to press on. In some cases, I could sense just the slightest bit of judgment in their voice; maybe fear. And yet, they were only reflecting the questioning that was taking place deep in my soul. Would I ever feel different?
If you’re reading this, I can assume that you’re going through something similar. Surely the circumstances are different, but the ache is the same.
You don’t want to go to church and you’re not sure how to move forward. Perhaps you’re ashamed of your absence. Maybe you don’t know where or who to turn to. It’s possible that you’re still holding on by a thread, still attending, and just biding your time. To you, I want to say: it’s okay.
Come to Jesus
In paraphrasing Jesus’ words in Matthew 11, Eugene Peterson writes, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life” (Matthew 11:28 MSG). Jesus is calling to us. He is inviting us into a new way of living that doesn’t permit shame or allow for obligation. He’s well aware that we calculate holiness and righteousness with make-believe checklists. He has seen God’s love capitalized on and made a mockery of systems and programs. He’s no stranger to our inclination to make idols of pastors, preachers, and teachers. But it is with compassion and wisdom that Jesus beseeches us to come. Not to church. Not to a building. Not to a sermon. Not to a worship set. But to himself. It is here, with him, that we can rest for as long as we need, without an ounce of retribution or misunderstanding. It’s here that we can finally exhale. We can cease striving and pretending because Jesus allows us to show up exactly as we are. Whether we’re broken, wounded, or weary, Jesus wants us there.
The beauty in Jesus’ invitation is that we’re gifted with more than just his presence. We get to learn from him, too. He goes on to say in verse 29, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29). Jesus doesn’t want to just instruct us; he wants to live life with us. He provides what we need. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find…and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7-8 NIV) Jesus makes it clear that he won’t hold back. He proved it to us on the cross. His blood, sweat, and tears pour out in abundance. We’re drenched in the promise that Jesus lacks nothing. He fulfills our every need. Wherever we might find ourselves on a Sunday morning, our attendance won’t minimize our dependence on him. And it won’t dilute or make anymore perfect the daily discipleship that we get to receive from him. It’s not unusual for us to forget the very thing that brought us to church in the first place; that is, to know Jesus. That’s the goal. Nothing less. Nothing more.
We tend to overcomplicate what God untangled with his Son. When Jesus says, “rest,” we strive. When Jesus says, “come to me,” we run to everything but him. When Jesus says, “you’re free,” we say “not yet.” It’s as simple as this: when we take him at his word, we get freedom. Jesus later declares in Matthew 11:30, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Eugene Peterson paraphrased it this way: “Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Don’t miss this. There’s nothing we can do to earn or deserve freedom. It’s ours for the taking when we believe in him. It’s his gift to us when we come to him.
The truth is, sometimes we don’t have the strength to bring ourselves even to Jesus. We’re living in a pit of despair, discouragement, and doubt. God feels distant and silent. Life is chaotic and messy. It might not just be a church that we’re avoiding. Sometimes we’re avoiding him.
Over and over again, the Bible shows us that God doesn’t leave us there. He takes great care of us; personally and extravagantly, even when we’re at our most vulnerable and unwilling. For example, Deuteronomy 32:10 paints a picture we might relate to. In this text, we find a barren wasteland void of hope and a people enslaved. And yet it says, “He encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.” In Hosea 2:14, we see the Lord have mercy on Israel again. It says, “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” However lost you feel, it’s important to remember these three things:
God will not abandon you.
God will defend you.
God will not reject you.
The God who led Moses and the Israelites out of the desert is the same God who leads you. When everyone else walks away, God stays. He is on-site; he is not remote in his dealing with us. He comes up into our mess and leans in. Tenderness cannot occur at a distance.
Jesus serves as an open door. Even at this very moment, he intercedes for each one of us, his love drenching the wasteland of our lives with hope.
Don’t Give Up
No matter the situation or season, the Word of God makes it pretty clear: community is necessary. There’s no easy way around that. We’re reminded that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). We’re reminded to encourage one another, “not neglecting to meet together” (Hebrews 10:24-25). At this moment, we can acknowledge the tension between what we don’t want right now but have been designed to need. God created us to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
While this is one of the most essential parts of our Christian faith, it’s also the most attacked. The enemy wants to separate us from that which should empower and steady us. He knows that isolation operates as a gateway to lies and deception. When we’re cut off from the body of Christ—the church—we flounder and fumble. So as we make our way through understanding why we don’t want to go to church, we remember that our physical actions can impact the supernatural and the spiritual parts of our lives; they’re all-encompassing. We must correct our course, turning toward the path of forward movement—and away from more brokenness and strife.
Years after leaving our first church for the emptiness of an unstructured Sunday, I found myself in a taco joint with a few friends. It was late, and the restaurant was busy and loud. Our table was decorated with half-eaten plates of chips and salsa. While reaching for more chips, my friend began to share about her marriage. It wasn’t cute, but deep. She was hurting and she needed guidance. As the roar of the clientele got louder, we bowed our heads and closed our eyes to pray. We exhorted, encouraged, and cried together. Later, as I drove home, I realized that I had gotten a glimpse of restoration.
One summer, I thought it would be great to invite a few women over for a Bible study. It was just me, a few women, and our kids. Once a week, I’d brew coffee and set out quiche. We’d gather in the sunlight that streamed through the windows and share about the hard and the good in our lives.
Then there was a season where we attended a home church. Every Sunday evening we’d pile into our pastor’s living room around a blazing fire. He’d prepare a message, and after, we’d discuss our thoughts. I remember the kitchen was always open, and the counters were always filled with treats. Kids were welcome, of course. They’d run downstairs and play altogether. Sometimes, they’d come up to interrupt one of us. Except, it wasn’t ever really an interruption.
Slowly, but steadily, I realized that the very thing I had run from was being used by God to help heal me and grow me. But it looked and felt different.
And, finally, so did I.
Start with reflection. In fact, here are a few questions you can use:
- Why don’t you want to go to church? Be honest. Write it down. Give it to the Lord.
- Have you accepted Jesus’ invitation to come to him? What does it look like for you to do that right now?
- How has God tenderly spoken to you? If you haven’t heard from him, how can you make space in your life to hear from him on this subject?
- In what ways has community been beneficial to you? How can you continue to seek other believers while being in this uncertain season?
- Who can you trust to encourage and challenge you during this time? Who are your safe people?
- Share your ache and disappointment
- Give yourself and your heart over to the Lord
- Ask for discernment and clarity
- Petition for Godly community
Image Credit: Emilee Carpenter
Tabitha Panariso is unashamedly serious about Jesus and equally terrible at small talk. As a writer, speaker, wife, and mama, she's realized that the only way to endure is to keep the main thing, the main thing. Her mission: to help women fight for any unwavering faith in an unsteady world.